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Enhanced Manufacturing


Industrial producers across the New North improve the skills of their workforce to work faster, smarter and safer

Story by Sean Fitzgerald

As with any number of businesses, the recession of 2008 and 2009 took a toll on manufacturers’ ability to command new sales and maintain the higher production levels they enjoyed earlier in the decade. Some didn’t survive, and many didn’t do so without trimming back their workforce to the bare essentials.

Kiel-based Amerequip Inc. bottomed out at $20 million in annual revenues during 2010 and had laid off half of its workforce to a point where it had just 102 employees when economic recovery began to encourage more customer orders once again, said Mike Vander Zanden, president and CEO. At the time, he said, the 95-year-old manufacturer of component parts for heavy equipment used in the agricultural and lawn and garden industries went through a transformation and set its sights on reaching 400 employees and achieving $100 million in annual receipts by 2020.

“If we were going to get there, and when we get there, we don’t want to leave anybody behind,” Vander Zanden said, meaning it needed to continually improve skills sets – both technical and soft skills – for all of its employees.

The company reached out to Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac to develop some customized training for its staff to better understand continuous improvement and 5S efficiency methodologies to enhance performance on the shop floor. Shortly after, other training modules teaching leadership development, listening, having difficult conversations or supervisory training, as examples, engaged more of the company’s workforce to sharpen its skills. Moraine Park even assisted Amerequip in applying for Worker Advancement Training grants through the state Department of Workforce Development, which helped pick up as much as half of the cost of the training.

Putting an exclamation mark on the commitment to its training efforts, Amerequip constructed a 170-seat training center in 2013, allowing nearly all of the training from Moraine Park instructors to be conducted onsite.

The shift from an environment that didn’t appreciate training to one that’s embraced it with zealous passion is evident – the company has now grown to more than 270 employees and enjoys a robust pipeline of customer orders. It’s also evolved its human resource practices along the way, Vander Zanden said.

“We don’t hire for skill and ability anymore, we hire on character and values,” he noted, explaining the company’s new philosophy that an unskilled new hire of exceptional character can be trained for skills like operating a press brake, welding or blueprint reading.

Such hiring philosophies aren’t new to the companies Moraine Park has contracted with to provide training.

“Manufacturing environments are fast moving, often changing, and require employees to think critically to solve complex problems,” said Jo Ann Hall, dean of economic and workforce development at Moraine Park. “In today’s environment, it is not uncommon for employers to hire individuals who show the desire, drive, motivation, and integrity they want from their employees, and then train them on the technical skills needed to do the job.”

Training opportunities were not necessarily directly related to job responsibilities. Even long-tenured employees on the shop floor – many who initially may have thought the required training was a waste of time – have elected of their own volition to take other training through Moraine Park at their worksite to learn skills like using the Internet or Microsoft Word and Excel.

“They recognize we’re investing in them because we care about them and we love them,” Vander Zanden said. “What started out as a challenge five years ago has turned into a real opportunity.”

Replacing retiring plant maintenance workers

It’s a relatively common thread across mid-size to large manufacturers everywhere that plant maintenance staff are often some of the most experienced and most tenured on the shop floor.

As a result, it’s not surprising that a large number of industrial producers across northeast Wisconsin are experiencing a worker shortage of skilled and knowledgeable maintenance staff to ensure million-dollar pieces of equipment are operating as expected.

Replacing such experience through job postings is a tall order. According to the 2016 Manufacturing Vitality Index recently released by Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, 78 percent of large and mid-sized manufacturers across the New North anticipate some difficulty hiring qualified workers in the year ahead, more than three times the number of companies reporting such difficulty in 2011.

In an attempt to provide a solution tailored specifically toward preparing manufacturer’s existing production employees for roles in plant maintenance, a new program is being piloted by Fox Valley Technical College, Fox Valley Workforce Development Board and a collaboration of industrial companies to train the basic fundamentals of industrial maintenance.

“It’s a common theme we hear time and time again,” said Kurt Thern, the department chair for automation technology at Appleton-based Fox Valley Tech. “Manufacturers tell us, ‘We have a lot of people internally – could we maybe bring them up from a production position?’”

This grant-funded initiative places about 45 current employees from 10 manufacturers across the region in the classroom one day a week for two semesters to brush up on math applications and learn new skills such as hardwire controls and general electrical circuitry, said Steve Straub, dean of manufacturing and agricultural technologies at Fox Valley Tech. Back on the shop floor, the employees implement the lessons learned in the classroom with the guidance of a co-working mentor.

“(These companies) are looking at the sustainability of their business model and the succession plan of their workforce,” said Straub, noting that the transfer of years of institutional knowledge from an older generation on the cusp of retirement might be lost if not for the opportunity to train younger replacements.

Thern helped design the curriculum for the program following conversations with participating manufacturers – including notable local employers such as Neenah-based Bemis Company, Waupaca Foundry and Hoffmaster Group in Oshkosh, among others. While the companies each serve different markets with their products, many of the basic skills they’re looking for in a maintenance technician span across industries, Thern said, such as problem solving and basic troubleshooting.

“Controls are controls – that’s what’s operating the machinery in any facility. If you can teach the basics of control theory, that’s transferrable across industries,” Thern said.

Participating employers commit to paying wages for their employees to attend the one 8-hour day of class work each week. Employers see the long-term value of investing in the skills of these employees.

Employees participating in this inaugural program, which began this past September, earn five credits each semester toward an industrial maintenance certificate. All 10 credits can also be applied toward associate degrees in either electromechanical technology or in automated manufacturing technology should the employee decide to advance their education further.

The move from a production worker to a maintenance position is a step up the career ladder and comes with an increase in salary, sometimes a sizable one. For the employers, the program is an investment in a resource they already have, as opposed to a fishing expedition for elusive skilled talent in an already competitive job market.

“(This investment) is going to pay off for these employers ten-fold in the end,” Thern said.

All under one roof

Efficiency and innovation in manufacturing occur in a variety of ways.

One emerging method has been creating convenient access to multiple vendors within the supply chain. It’s a new idea in northeast Wisconsin – even statewide – but one that’s evolved with the advent of the state’s first “manufacturing mall” established in the town of Menasha this past August.

Four small, emerging job shops joined forces under one roof near the Interstate 41 interchange with County Road II, providing an ease of access to one another for parts that require value-added machining, welding and refining by a handful of machine shops.

Grassroots Machining founder Chuck Duginski is one of the co-owners of the 12,000-sq. ft. industrial building that houses his 5-year-old business, along with J.W. Welding, Industrial Machine Services and Northern Compressor. The non-competing, complementary businesses have a relationship with one another for the past two to three years, Duginski said. Each company was growing and needed larger space to accommodate newer equipment, increasing inventories and heightened customer demand.

“Neither of us could (buy an industrial facility) on our own, but we could both do it together,” Duginski said, referring to Nick Vander Heyden, his partner in owning the building and one of the principles with both Industrial Machine Services and Northern Compressor.

The businesses share mutual customers that utilize all of them, in some cases, noted Duginski, who characterized the relationship as a one-stop shop for other larger OEMs and other manufacturers of component parts.

A machinist by trade with 30 years experience, Duginski’s staff of nine employees makes hand-crafted parts for a number of other manufacturers across Wisconsin and the Midwest. After starting out in his garage with an old milling machine and lathe, he now has four CNC turning centers and four CNC vertical lathes using about 4,000 square feet of space in his new building. But even that’s not enough.

“We are maxed out in space already,” Duginski said, noting he has an acre of real estate available adjacent to his building and is considering an addition which would double the size of the current facility. “I have the ability (to grow) as far as customers asking me to get larger equipment and be able to make more product.”

J.W. Welding owner Jason Harold just learned how to weld less than a decade ago. After two years working at Oshkosh Corp. when defense contracts were winding down and layoffs were beginning to take effect, Harold said he saw the writing on the wall. He went out on his own in 2009, launching his own contract welding business, with Duginski as his first customer. Currently, he said Grassroots Machining accounts for nearly half of his weld shop’s business, making it convenient to be within shouting distance of Duginski. Harold indicates he’s also challenged by growth, needing to acquire additional capital equipment such as a laser cutter.

“Right now, I’m just looking to get some new equipment so that I can do larger jobs,” he said.

Building for the future

The aforementioned Manufacturing Vitality Index indicates northeast Wisconsin manufacturers expect 2016 to be even more prosperous than this year, which by recent accounts has been a banner year in the post-recession era. That could be perceived as positive news for the region’s workforce, since manufacturing accounts for an estimated 23 percent of northeast Wisconsin’s employment base.

But as the unemployment base shrinks to less than 4 percent across the New North, many companies with plans to expand face the limitation of finding resources to fill skilled positions. Workforce training initiatives similar to the examples mentioned above can help the region’s industrial employers stay ahead of their competitors by working faster, smarter and safer.

“The manufacturing environment will continue to be one of change and growth,” said Moraine Park’s Hall. “Markets will continue to fluctuate. That’s a given in any economy. But manufacturing drives the economy, so it will always be a stable force in job creation.”